By Craig Guillot, Contributing Writer
As we near the spring tornado and summer hurricane seasons, emergency preparedness experts say many property management companies need to pay close attention to their disaster plans. Effective preparedness starts with evaluating the risks, securing the property, putting together a written plan and having a strong commitment to disaster planning at all levels of the organization.
Put your plans in writing
Scott McCurdy, co-owner of Coastal Reconstruction Group in Winter Park, Fla., is an associate member of the Greater Orlando Apartment Association and conducts disaster preparedness seminars around the state. He says disaster and emergency planning starts at the top and needs to be made a priority throughout all levels of the organization. According to McCurdy, having an emergency manual or handbook is critical because it lays out expectations, responsibilities and proper procedures for on-site multi-housing managers.
Gerry Henigsman, Executive Vice President of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, adds that emergency plans should clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of the management and staff before, during and after the disaster. This should include plans for preparing the property, communicating with residents and dealing with the aftermath.
There should also be a plan for putting residents in touch with appropriate federal or non-profit agencies for assistance. In the event of a large natural disaster that might include FEMA. Henigsman notes that there should be written plans for housing tenants at sister properties in the event their apartments are damaged. Some communities even establish mutual aid agreements with competing properties to house their tenants after a disaster.
“You want to identify all the vacancies you have in the area at a time like that. After a disaster, it’s not a competitive game anymore. You just want to get people sheltered,” says Henigsman.
At the Houston Apartment Association, Vice President for Public Affairs Andy Teas remarks that having redundancy and backup of data is critical to access rent rolls and contact information in the event of extended power outages and damage.
Teas points out that the active hurricane and tornado seasons of the past decade have prompted more apartment communities to better prepare for such events. One of the most important elements of disaster preparedness is that when plans are tested in the dime of a real event, they be analyzed and altered to compensate for discovered holes and weaknesses.
“Every time there is a disaster you always learn something new, so try to revise your plans to better handle things during the next one,” explains Teas.
Take preventative measures
When it comes to advance planning during active hurricane and tornado seasons, McCurdy says that a little preventative maintenance can go a long way in minimizing damage.
In the spring he recommends assessing all the trees on the property and trimming branches away from roofs and buildings where necessary. Gutters should then be cleared of debris, window screens should be secured and the property should be checked to ensure that water accumulation flows away from the buildings. Sometimes it’s not catastrophic flooding, but pooling from just a few inches of water that can commonly cause damage.
“You can’t stop a storm from coming, but you can do some things to minimize the potential damage should it come. You should prepare well in advance of the season,” adds McCurdy.
Those susceptible to blizzards and ice storms should also start preparing their properties in fall against freezing pipes, ice dams, snow build-ups and icy sidewalks. Other disasters can’t often be foreseen, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has many great resources at Ready.gov. You can find articles and documents on building and implementing an emergency plan and how to prepare for certain types of disasters.
The most important part of disaster and emergency preparedness is that it be made a continuous process. While multifamily housing owners and perators often review and strengthen their disaster plans after big destructive weather events, this often slips down their list of priorities within a couple of years. Before long, says McCurdy, they’re put on the back burner.
“People get things together right after a storm, but then a couple of years go by and they get complacent. You lull yourself to sleep thinking nothing bad is going to happen again, but then it does and you’re not prepared,” adds McCurdy.
People first, property second
All disaster plans should start with ensuring the safety of the residents and the property staff, notes Henigsman. In the case of voluntary or mandatory evacuations, apartment communities have little responsibility or recourse in getting residents to leave, but they do have a responsibility to their staff.
No matter what region of the country they are in, all property management offices should have basic emergency supplies. McCurdy suggests including flashlights, batteries, canned food, water and a basic first aid kit. Beyond that, he says, all staff should keep sturdy boots in the office as high heels and dress loafers won’t cut it after a storm.
“In many cases, more people are injured after storms than during them. And foot injuries are very common when you have debris around,” explains McCurdy.
While plans should be written and made available to all levels of staff, managers should also keep copies of those plans at their homes since they may not be at work when a disaster strikes. Henigsman adds that disaster and emergency plans should also be comprehensive and allow for multiple staff to play multiple roles. A high turnover rate in the industry—and the fact that disasters can strike when managers are out of town—means that flexibility is required.
“You want your plan to work no matter who is there,” adds Henigsman. “The person you think will implement it may not be there when something happens.”